The Symbolism of Animals in Mesopotamian Art

Animals were ubiquitous in Mesopotamian art, symbolizing the power of kings and gods, offering protection from enemies, or working for humans pulling plows in the fields or chariots into wars.

Mar 16, 2023By Daniella Garran, PGCert Archaeology & Heritage, MA Education, BA Art History

vessel stag terminating ibex mesopotamian


Animals played an essential role in the daily life and culture of the ancient Mesopotamians. Whether oxen pulled plows in the fertile river valleys, kings hunted lions to demonstrate their power and prowess over nature, or pack animals used to travel, both domesticated and wild animals were part of the fabric of the ancient Middle East. Mesopotamian artists relied on the vast array of animals in the region to inspire their creativity and to symbolize their ever-present deities while also ascribing animal characteristics to their leaders. Animals in Mesopotamian art were depicted in a highly naturalistic manner indicating that the artists worked from observation though there are numerous examples of stylized rendering.


Different eras and Mesopotamian cultures saw different animals depicted more frequently but most often depicted were goats, bulls, and lions. Animals were found on wall panels, foundation pegs, ceremonial objects, armor, weapons, sculptures, and luxury items. Animals were often shown behaving as humans, a curious trend in the art of the ancient Middle East. The exaggerated features of wild and exotic animals, such as their teeth and claws, were also used to symbolize the power and ferocity of these untamed creatures.


Animals in Mesopotamian Art: Rhyta

Vessel Terminating in the Forepart of a Stag, Hittite, circa 14th – 13th century BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Perhaps the most complex rendering of animals in Mesopotamian art takes the form of rhyta. The word rhyton derives from the Greek rhytos, meaning flowing, though it is often translated as drinking horn, perhaps due to the vessel’s horn shape. It is speculated that actual animal horns were used originally though due to their organic nature, none have survived in the archaeological record.


These ceremonial drinking and pouring vessels were made of precious metals, typically gold and silver, but also clay, an abundant natural resource in Mesopotamia. Rhyta played a central role in feasts and festivals and were used to serve alcoholic beverages. It is believed that drinking straws were inserted into a hole in the animal’s back on the earliest rhyta, whereas later vessels were used in the same manner a cup would be used today. It is also possible that later people would have used the rhyton as a sort of strainer, pouring the liquid into the wider opening to be filtered through the smaller opening and into a bowl.

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Most Mesopotamian rhyta fall into two categories: head rhyta and bent rhyta. The bent rhyta (as seen above) have a long upper part and terminate in the head or upper body of an animal, with the spout located between the animal’s legs. Head rhyta most commonly take the form of horned animals like goats and cows. Some rhyta, such as the one depicted above, may have been used as a type of amulet during a ceremony. In hopes of having a fruitful hunt, hunters may have consumed liquid poured from a rhyton with a successful hunt scene around its top. Other rhyta were made to invoke the qualities of the animal shown or of the god it symbolized.


In the later history of this region following the Persian Wars and the conquests of Alexander the Great, rhyta from the East were prized possessions. Often claimed as booty by the conquering Greeks, they indicated the far-reaching conquest and influence of Greek civilization.


Weaponry and Armor

Shaft-hole axe head with bird-headed demon, boar, and dragon, Bactria and Margiana, circa late 3rd–early 2nd millennium BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Animals were also prevalent in weaponry and armor. Most often, they were depicted on ceremonial military equipment, again to invoke the characteristics of those animals or the protection of certain gods or goddesses. The shaft-hole axe depicted above includes several creatures, including a composite beast, a dragon, and a boar. All are cast and shown in relief. Generally speaking, weapons made from more prized materials such as gold and silver would have been used for ceremonial purposes rather than in battle; such materials are quite malleable and would not be of use in combat.


How Animals in Mesopotamian Art Became Weights and Measures

Weight in the Shape of a Frog, Babylon, circa 2000 – 1600 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


It is somewhat curious that the Mesopotamians created their standardized weights and measures in the shape of animals, most notably ducks and frogs, rather than plain stones. Such zoomorphic weights were not unique to Mesopotamia though the Mesopotamians were the first to standardize the concept of weight to ensure fair and equal trading.  It is unknown why animals such as ducks and frogs were chosen or if there is any significance to them in Mesopotamian culture. However, the artists chose animals whose natural shape would lend itself to the general shape of the stone, so that it required little carving.


The Lion

Panel With Striding Lion, Babylon, circa 604-562 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Lions were prevalent in Mesopotamian art. They typically represented the power of nature, though, in certain instances, they symbolized Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. The Epic of Gilgamesh references her riding in a chariot drawn by seven lions. Lions also represent Nergal and Ninurta on occasion.


Additionally, the scene of the lion hunt was reserved for royalty. Such scenes were shown as early as 3000 BCE on wall panels. The lion hunt was one of the earliest symbols of leadership in all art. Kings were often shown to be taller than lions, even when rearing up on their hindquarters. This likely indicated the king’s power over all of nature, including its most ferocious beasts. It was the king’s duty to rid the land of these beasts and to restore and maintain peace and order. Symbolically speaking, lions represented opposing forces that posed a threat to the various city-states. Victory over lions would surely ingratiate the people to their fearless leader, who was brave and determined to protect his people from literal and figurative threats.


While the lion hunt was prevalent in Assyrian art, lions were equally abundant in the Babylonian art of the sixth century BCE. In the city of Babylon, they were featured prominently along the Processional Way. 120 striding lion panels lined this sacred street through which icons were paraded on New Year’s Day each year as they processed through the Gate of Ishtar.


The Ibex

Vessel Stand With Ibex Support, Sumerian, circa 2600 – 2350 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Goats were among the first animals domesticated by the people of the ancient Near East. Chosen for the ease with which they could be herded and their docile nature, the Mesopotamians used them for work, hide, meat, and milk. Although large flocks were the property of the city-state or temple, their byproducts were used as payment for the shepherds who tended them. While goats were extremely useful to the Mesopotamians, the fact that they were ever-present in much of their art and literature indicates that they were, perhaps, a more significant part of Mesopotamian culture and religion. For example, many votive statues in the form of goats and goat-bearing figures have been discovered, indicating that goats were among the gifts and offerings preferred by the gods.


The form of the goat is easily recognizable in Mesopotamian art. However, the horns were commonly exaggerated. These were likely elongated as a stylistic choice on the artist’s part, while the rest of the animal was shown in a typical, identifiable fashion. This was common practice among ancient artists when an animal was familiar to them.


Composite Creatures

Human-headed Winged Lion (lamassu), Assyria, 883 – 859 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


While composite creatures are abundant in Mesopotamian art, they are, in fact, figments of the artists’ imagination. Created to represent a variety of traits or divine powers, these creatures were featured on wall panels, cylinder seals, and weaponry, among other types of objects. Frequently depicted composite creatures include the lamassu, the lion-headed eagle, and the lion-dragon. Composite creatures were often mythological or divine in nature and demonstrated human tendencies, sometimes intended as shamans.


It should be noted that composite creatures often reflected the importance of the human-animal connection and may represent the Mesopotamians’ changing relationship with nature and animals.


Animals in Mesopotamian Art: Bulls

Lyre Fragment, Bull Head, Sumerian, circa 2450 BCE, via the University of Pennsylvania Museum


Bulls were among the first animals to be domesticated in Mesopotamia, even before the earliest civilizations had settled and established governments. In fact, bulls were so significant that their use had set wages established in the Code of Hammurabi. The uses for bulls were as diverse as their symbolism: fertility, protection, reproduction, and even divinity. Bulls were often associated with Edad, the thunder god, or Ishtar, who requested Anu to create a bull of Heaven.


Human-headed winged bulls were known as lamassus and were often shown protecting city gates. The lamassu was most often found guarding Assyrian palaces. The presence of a human head suggests a connection to reason and intelligence, while the bull’s body symbolizes strength and power. In addition to their presence at palace gates, bulls were also shown on lyres, cylinder seals, amulets, bowls, and small toys.


In short, animals played a significant role in all aspects of Mesopotamian art. They can be seen in a variety of forms and media, most often shown as they occur in nature. Animals were both symbolic and sacred to the Mesopotamians, giving modern viewers a look into the mindset of one of the earliest civilizations on earth.

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By Daniella GarranPGCert Archaeology & Heritage, MA Education, BA Art HistoryDaniella is an ancient history teacher with a background in material culture. She completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Archaeology and Heritage at the University of Leicester, a Master’s in Education and Museum Studies at Tufts University, and a Bachelor’s in History and Art History at Connecticut College. She has traveled throughout Europe with middle school students and has participated in archaeological digs in Bulgaria and England.